Joe Cocker (1944-2014) was an English singer-songwriter and musician famed for his gritty voice and his impassioned and intense stage presence. He was born John Robert Cocker in Sheffield, England, where he also formed his first bands Arnold and the Avengers (when he took the stage name Vance Arnold), then the Big Blues, and next the Grease Band. He recorded a solo single “Marjorine” which became a minor hit. Cocker achieved his first major hit with a cover of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” which not only topped the UK charts but also broke into the US Hot 100 in 1968. In 1969 Cocker made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He became known and successful for covering other tunes by the Beatles and other artists – they included “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, “Cry Me A River” (popularized by Julie London), and “The Letter” (by the Box Tops) the last which gave Cocker his first Top 10 in the US, in 1970. To fulfill his contractual obligations he formed a 30-plus piece backing/touring band called Mad Dogs and the Englishmen. He also achieved other hits on the Hot 100: “Cry Me A River”, “High Time We Went/Black Eyed Blues”, “Midnight Rider” and his best-known hit “You Are So Beautiful” (which was also his best-performing US hit single). Apart from covers, he also wrote his own material – some of them co-written with his Grease Band mate Christ Stanton – like “Woman to Woman” and “Pardon Me”. He experienced drug and alcohol problems during the 1970s but managed to make a successful comeback in the 1980s and 1990s scoring hits mostly concentrated on the UK charts: “Love Is Alive” (#7 US rock chart, 1992), “(All I Know) Feels Like Forever”, “Unchain My Heart”, and “When The Night Comes” (#11 US Hot 100 in 1989). Cocker was honored with Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2007.
Cocker passed away on December 22, 2014 due to lung cancer. He was 70 years old. The full biography follows below:
Early life and career
Rock and blues singer Joe Cocker was born John Robert Cocker in Yorkshire, England on May 24, 1944. He started singing when he was reaching puberty, at the height of the England’s skiffle craze.
He decided to pursue a full-time music career. In 1961 he began to sing under the stage name Vance Arnold, and formed his new group Vance Arnold and the Avengers. After he and his band hit the local Sheffield music scene, Cocker (as Arnold) signed his first contract as a solo pop act, and released a few records there. His stint there wasn’t a success.
Cocker with the Grease Band, and his first taste of success
Cocker spent a long hiatus until 1966 when he formed another group The Grease Band which also played in various local clubs in Sheffield. The first incarnation of the Grease band dissolved when Cocker and bandmate Christ Stainton moved to London. Their move to the big city was part of an invitation by producer Denny Cordell (Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, Georgie Fame). It was also Cordell who provided Cocker a residency in London
In London, Cocker and Stainton formed a new version of The Grease Band with new members. He recorded a song “Marjorine” which would be his first charting single, hitting #48 on the UK singles chart in 1968. Later that year he would achieve his first big hit with his cover version of the Beatles “With A Little Help From My Friends”. It had a radical re-arrangement and its tempo was definitely much slower than the Beatles original. It also featured drums from Procol Harum’s B. J. Wilson and guitars from future Led Zeppelin axeman Jimmy Page.
Cocker performed “With A Little Help From My Friends” at the US Woodstock Festival in 1969, and from there his career really began to take off. The single went topped the British charts and at #68 on the US Billboard Hot 100. His debut album, also titled With A Little Help From My Friends, went gold in the US
In 1969 Cocker followed this with another UK hit “Delta Lady”, a Leon Russell cover. It went to #10 on the national singles charts. Not coincidentally, Russell was also Cocker’s musical director at that time. Another cover by the Beatles, “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” peaked at #30 on the Billboard pop chart. The singles’ album Joe Cocker also went gold in America.
Also in 1969 he embarked on a series on first US performances, including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. However, he didn’t want to do another tour so he disbanded the Grease Band.
Cocker with Mad Dogs and the Englishmen
However, Cocker was forced to form another group as another US tour had already been booked. So Cocker, reluctantly, went out and assembled a group of 40-plus musicians which was named Mad Dog and Englishmen. So the tour was eventually pushed forward, and Cocker toured in 48 US cities. This tour –as well as his falling-out with Russell — led him to depression. He turned to alcohol and by then Cocker was drinking excessively.
His commercial fortunes, on the other hand, turned better for the time being. In 1970 Cocker and Mad Dogs and Englishmen released a live album simply titled Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which recorded their previous tours. It produced Cocker’s first ever US Top 10 hit, a cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter”. It went to #7 on the Billboard pop chart. The same album also yielded another hit single with Cocker’s cover of the Julie London hit “Cry Me A River” which was just a shy away from the Top 10.
Comeback, later career and final years
However, subsequent releases became less significant, and Cocker’s excessive drinking greatly exacerbated his once-powerful voice. He was also having troubles with the law, and further sinking into depression. He also had begun to use marijuana and heroin which undermined his career.
But in 1975 he made a comeback to the American Top 10 chart with “You Are So Beautiful” (co-written by Billy Preston, knows as the keyboardist on the Beatles film Let It Be). The song shot to #5 on the charts, helping its album I Can Stand A Little Rain went to #11 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
In 1982 Cocker scored another hit again with a duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong”. The single was also included as a soundtrack of the hit romantic movie An Officer And A Gentleman. The film’s producer, Don Simpson, sneered at the song and predicted that it won’t be a hit. But he was wrong — “Up Where We Belong” went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and a Golden Globe award for the same category.
Cocker’s songs were still charting although less frequently compared to the 1970s and the 1980s; his last big hit was 1989’s “When The Night Comes” (from the album One Night Of Sin) which reached #11 on the Hot 100.
Cocker continued to consistently release studio albums as well as compilations and live material. One of the most notable recent releases was Hymn For My Soul (Europe in 2007, US in 2008) which featured covers of songs previously performed by Stevie Wonder, John Fogerty, George Harrison, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, among many others. Cocker released his latest studio album Fire It Up in 2012 which debuted at #17 on the UK album chart. Cocker followed this up with a two-month European tour in early 2013.
Joe Cocker was still active in the industry he so much loved, until he died of lung cancer in Crawford, Colorado in United States on December 22, 2014. He was 70 years old